Guest Blog: Mary Robinson MP on her Visit to Jordan with UNICEF

This week we are featuring a blog post from CFID supporter, Mary Robinson MP, on her experience of visiting Syrian refugee camps in Jordan with CFID Chair Amanda Solloway MP as part of a UNICEF delegation.
Here, Mary highlights her observations and the great work UNICEF are doing to support Syrian refugees with support from DFID.

Over the summer, many people have written to me with concerns about the situation in Syria and the plight of refugees. The terrible scenes witnessed as people risked their lives and their children’s lives crossing the Mediterranean into Europe brought home to many of us the depth of despair into which many Syrian people have fallen.

So, when an opportunity was presented to me to accompany a UNICEF delegation to the region, with my colleague Amanda Solloway MP, I had the chance to see first-hand the impact of this crisis on one of the neighbouring countries. Syrian people have sought refuge in various countries in the region and it is estimated that over 700,000 displaced people are currently living in Jordan.

Whilst there, I visited Za’atari – the largest refugee camp in Jordan. Situated just 14 miles from the Syrian border, which at its height it was home to 130,000 people. Today, that number stands at over 80,000, with around 55% of the inhabitants under the age of 17. This presents a huge problem, not only for families who want to see their children educated and have aspirations for their future, but also for the Jordanian education system.

However, where education is offered, whether by UNICEF or the Jordanian system, the children take it up with enthusiasm and benefit from some normality being brought back into their lives.

Despite the basic conditions of the camp, Za’atari is well set out and a place where some people feel settled enough to set up small businesses on the roadside selling everything from fruit and clothes to hardware and bike repairs. It was clear that this was a population that wanted to make the best of a bad situation, and this alone was a testament to what NGOs like UNICEF, backed by international aid are able to achieve when they work with refugee communities.

Many of the inhabitants have lived in the camp since the civil war started and they all hope to return home soon. But as the war continues, hope is fading. Furthermore, the longer these displaced people are in camps the more dire and vulnerable their situation becomes - and the harder it will be for them to rebuild their lives when they do return home.

However, it was staggering to learn that the majority do not live in formal camps at all, in fact 85% of Syrian refugees live outside the camps in host communities. Many of these families live in unfinished or dilapidated rooms with little furniture and no sanitation facilities.

We visited one of these families and were welcomed into the home of Basma, a 36 year old woman who, although heavily pregnant, had fled Syria with her husband and other children three years ago after her son was killed in the conflict. Even after this loss, Basma and her family feel lucky that they left in time before everything they had was destroyed but they are desperate to return to Syria, she said ‘it’s like visiting a neighbour but feeling like you have to go home.’ It was thought provoking to see families with so little making a life for themselves, and focusing on the safety and future of their children.

All the families, which we visited, were united by the desire to see their children having access to education. The UNICEF-Makani centre initiative provides this support and education to children who, for various reasons, are outside the Jordanian education system. The centres provide a safe and friendly atmosphere in which these vulnerable children can learn in a carefully monitored environment. When we visited the centre it was great to see children singing, playing music and learning valuable life skills, and focusing on their sense of identity – it was a sharp contrast to the conflict they had left behind in Syria. Sixteen year old Alaa said ‘we were not accepted at public schools, but at this centre it is like a complete school … I need (education) so much and whatever I learn I teach my brother and sisters at home.’

Yet, for those children who have missed years of education because of war and violence they have also missed the opportunity to obtain the relevant certificates to demonstrate their education levels. To address this obstacle, the Jordanian Government has introduced ‘letters of equivalence’ so the children of refugees may have a better hope of obtaining meaningful employment. However, for even the luckiest children this is by no means the only obstacle to employment, as pressure on Jordan’s national employment situation means that the government is cautious about extending the labour market to refugees. The work of UNICEF in supporting families and equipping the children of Syrian refugees for the future is wide ranging and the hope of the refugees is to make that future in a safe Syria.

The British Government is committed to helping 20,000 refugees relocate to Britain and countries across the European Union are accommodating refugees who have travelled across the continent. However, the focus amongst the people I met was clearly on a return to their homes in Syria. The challenge is to give hope for a rebuilt Syria so teenagers like Alaa and families like Basma and her children can safely return home - and security and normality can be restored to their lives.